How Nigeria committed “N106 billion error” in MTN fine letter

MTN Nigeria office
MTN Nigeria office

The Nigerian government on Friday admitted responsibility for an embarrassing N106 billion discrepancy in fines imposed on telecoms firm, MTN.

The Nigerian Communications Commission had on Thursday asked the South African operator to pay 35 per cent less N1.04 trillion ($5.2 billion) fine earlier charged the company for failing to disconnect unregistered subscribers.

But on Friday, the government said the accurate discount was 25 per cent and not 35 per cent, meaning MTN was to pay N780 billion and not N674 billion as previously reported.

The NCC said in a letter seen by PREMIUM TIMES that the difference was caused by a “typographical error” that had been promptly corrected.

A spokesperson, Tony Ojobo, declined to discuss details of the error.

Mr. Ojobo told PREMIUM TIMES “the important thing is that the error was corrected and that MTN shareholders know that they got a waiver”.

But multiple sources at the presidency told this newspaper how the error occurred, and how the government scrambled to correct it.

The approval for the reduction of the N1.04 trillion fine came from President Buhari, our sources at the presidency said.

The communications minister, Adebayo Shittu, had said last week that a decision on a waiver for MTN could only be taken by President Muhammadu Buhari.

An official well briefed on the matter said President Buhari got involved in the matter because there was no minister or board at the time the decision on the fine was taken.

“The president assumed supervisory role of NCC because there was no minister,” the source said.

On October 25, the NCC slammed a N1.04 trillion fine on MTN for failing to disconnect 5.1 million unregistered subscribers.

The commission had earlier in the year directed mobile telephone companies to register their subscribers, but MTN defaulted.

When the government eventually agreed to reduce its heavy fine, in response to pressure from MTN and its shareholders, the approval came from the presidency, our sources said.

Presidency officials erroneously wrote to the NCC directing the regulatory agency to cut the fine by 35 per cent, instead of 25 per cent approved by President Muhammadu Buhari.

It was the erroneous letter from the presidency that confused the NCC, making its officials to write to MTN communicating a 35 per cent reduction in the fine.

The letter from the NCC informed MTN’s press statement indicating that the government had shifted grounds by reducing its fine by 35 per cent.

Our sources said the presidency only found out about the error after the MTN statement had been widely reported in the media, and immediately directed a refutation.

“The error emanated from the presidency,” the source said. “These things happen, there is printer error.”

A spokesperson for Mr. Buhari, Femi Adesina, however told PREMIUM TIMES the president had no hand in deciding or reducing the fine.

That claim contradicts the earlier position of the communications minister.

MTN is to pay the fine by December 31.

The company said it was carefully considering both letters from the NCC, while its executive chairman, Phuthuma Nhleko, re-engages the Nigerian authorities.

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